by Michael Huebner, artsBHAM.com
The din of canned holiday music blaring from shopping malls, airwaves and office buildings was silenced Thursday night, replaced by gentle and reflective evocations of Christmases past and modern scores that are destined to be masterpieces.
As it has in previous holiday programs, the Birmingham-based chamber choir Sursum Corda revealed a small portion of the wealth of choral repertoire that could, and should, inspire the season. This tradition of nontraditional fare included a potpourri of African-American spirituals, Bach and Brahms chorales, and English and American gems.
Director and founder Lester Seigel led off the 18-voice ensemble with “Masters In This Hall” by 17th-century composer Marin Marais, in a rousing arrangement by Seigel. It kicked off the choir’s “Sing Local” initiative, in which area composers are featured in new works or arrangements.
The rich English choral tradition was well represented, first by Robert Walker and Herbert Howells, later by Will Todd. This repertoire is particularly well suited for Sursum Corda for its thick, slow, settling harmonies. Of these, Todd’s “I Am Changed” was especially ravishing as its suspended dissonances crossed and resolved into a silken sonic fabric. Look for many more readings of this work, which was composed just last year.
Other “Sing Local” works included an “Ave Maria” setting by Lester Seigel’s son, Daniel. As an original Sursum Corda singer, the younger Seigel understands this group’s affinity for complex harmonies, surprising tonal turns and dramatic swells of volume. Timothy Banks’ arrangement of the spiritual “Sister Mary Had-a But One Child” captured the Nativity story with bluesy notes and rhythms.
The concert’s centerpiece was Stephen Paulus’ “Three Nativity Carols.” Joined by oboist James Sullivan and harpist Abigail Workman, the choir painted a colorful picture of Christ’s birth, Sullivan and Workman nicely expanding the narrative’s character.
Not to leave the familiar totally out of the mix, the choir sang “A Festival of Carols in Two Minutes,” in which snippets of 28 carols unfolded, and a lively arrangement of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” But this performance was more about Sursum Corda’s diving into less familiar old and new music that rightly deserves greater exposure. For that alone, Seigel and the choir are to be commended.